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Your IT infrastructure is the backbone of your business – make sure you secure it

In our recent article, Your devices are an entry point for hackers, it’s time to pull up the metaphorical drawbridgewe focused on the security measures you can take to protect your business via good device management. But what about your IT infrastructure itself? How do you secure the nervous system of your organisation? When research indicates only 5% of organisations’ data are properly protected, there are important questions to ask.  

 

What do we mean by IT infrastructure? 

The IT infrastructure of an organisation comprises of all server and network components. In short, your infrastructure is a collection of building blocks that make up the apps and solutions staff use to deliver services. Before public and private cloud, IT infrastructure was somewhat simpler as it was generally centralised within an on-premises environment and protected with various network security elements. It was relatively straightforward to keep the bad guys out. It was a reasonably simple gatekeeper system that controlled access in and out.   

Now, in the era of Cloud, the building blocks that make up your IT infrastructure are not neatly housed in one place, meaning the traditional methods of security cannot be applied in the same way. But a lot of the thinking around security is still the same, essentially that you want to create a boundary around your assets. 

“You can’t apply old, traditional thinking when your IT infrastructure extends beyond the corporate network. You have people accessing information from anywhere and using any device, all creating connection points to the corporate network but from areas of reduced control. We need to use the same security principles but apply them differently,” says Russell Kowald, Principal Consultant, Insync Technology. 

 

How do you protect your infrastructure properly? 

According to Russell there are five key considerations to address when securing your IT infrastructure. 

      1. Ongoing patchingPatching takes time and effort but it is crucial to staying secure. A core task for an IT team is to ensure all organisation IT is patched and up to date. 

“Patching is the bread and butter of IT security, but it is crucial now more than ever in light of situations like the zero-day vulnerability exploits we have seen recently with Microsoft Exchange. Ensuring you are protected by patching known exploits is really a no-brainer,” notes Russell.  

      2. Supportability & capabilityWhere IT was once hardware driven, a lot of infrastructure services now come from software and code. To protect this, you need to ensure that you are looking after and managing access to various cloud platforms and other line of business applications that may or may not reside within your organisation. 

      3. Finding a balanceThere are a lot of security bells and whistles within Microsoft 365, and it can be tempting to light them all up, however Russell’s advice is to take the time to find the right balance.

“You need to make sure you are appropriately secure but also still able to operate and execute core tasks. Some default settings might be right for you whilst others will need some rejigging to ensure they fulfil their intended purpose,” says Russell. 

      4. HardeningMuch like patching, hardening infrastructure is an ongoing process that has to be done to reduce or eliminate security threats.

“There are some good resources available to understand best practice when it comes to hardening. With the use of public cloud, we have unparalleled visibility into our cloud assets and infrastructure, meaning it is easier to harder than an on-premises infrastructure. In addition, the Australian Signals Directorate’s Information Security Manual provides a good framework and guidelines to follow in this respect.” advises Russell.  

      5. MonitoringUnderstanding what is happening within your infrastructure is crucial to protecting it. By monitoring it regularly and running checks, you can prevent hackers who might achieve a foothold via a less privileged user from building up their privileges and posing serious threat to your organisation.   

“Monitoring is not as simple as it sounds. You need to look at what and how everything is integrated and what talks to what within your infrastructure. To identify warning signs, you need to monitor how something is, or could be, compromised and what the knock-on effect is. Azure Sentinel is a good tool for monitoring as it provides holistic views and log analytics from your infrastructure wherever it lives,” says Russell.  

These five considerations can help guide you but, to be successful, Russell’s recommendation is to try to shift your mindset.  

“When it comes to infrastructure, it doesn’t work to have a fixed checklist of what to look for, you need to be more open-minded. A lot of security comes from thinking about the ‘what ifs’. For example, what if there is an outage, what will the security impacts be and what will the knock-on effects on the broader business be?” adds Russell.  

 

The benefits of Cloud security  

Whilst the process of securing a Cloud based infrastructure might be more challenging than its on-premises predecessor, it is worthwhile doing in order to reap the benefits.  

Deploying cloud-based solutions generally have built in security that requires you to do very little. You can reduce your need to patch with a cloud-based solution that automatically updates and has a short cadence for updates. Moving workloads to the cloud will level up your security, as long as you know what to check and where to look. Another advantage of using cloud-based security like what is in Microsoft 365 – is the ability to use immense scale and datapoints to make decisions – something that is unrealistic and undoable with on-premises infrastructure,” says Russell.  

“Ultimately, infrastructure security is one piece of a larger puzzle. On its own, infrastructure security isn’t enough. You need to think about how it links to device management and identity and environment management. If youinfrastructure is exposed, really it highlights a need to look at all four components,” concludes Russell.  

To ensure you are protected on every front, find out how Insync can help level up your security and protect your IT investment. Contact the team today.

 

Inside Insync - Sandy

Inside Insync – Sandy Catalucci

Today we meet: 

Sandy Catalucci

Lead Consultant for Adoption and Change Management

Time with Insync: June 2020

Previous notable time in IT industry/customer/vendor: I have worked for other Microsoft Partners such as Engage Squared and Empired as a lead consultant for Adoption and Change Management and have had the privilege of working with customers across all industries.

What are your best skills for your role?

Crafting strategies, facilitating and translating the technical into easily understood concepts for everyone.

What do you like about your role? 

Learning about Microsoft cloud-based technologies and passing on that knowledge to help customers navigate and better understand the modern workplace.

What trends are you seeing with customers? 

As customers are embedding the foundations of the modern workplace, we’re starting to revisit adoption and change management journeys to unlock more advanced ways of working throughout organisations.

Microsoft Teams is a digital transformation kick-starter. We’re talking about customisable workspaces providing integration with your entire Microsoft 365 suite of tools, increased productivity and collaboration with the ability to work on topics, projects, and operational activities, and all of this in a single application that is also your unified communications platform. If you haven’t implemented it yet, what are you waiting for?

Click here to read Sandy’s recent blog posts “Breaking tradition with Breakout Rooms”

Where have you used Insync core values in Insync everyday work life: 

can put my hand on my heart and say I live and breathe by our core values every day. My favourite is being open and honest as transparency is the key to building trust.


 

What do you like to do in your downtime?

Rollerblading and cycling along Brisbane’s beautiful river paths spotting cute dogs and encountering Brisbane’s wildlife such as scrub turkeys, possums, water dragons, curlews, and the odd bin chicken!

 

Rapid Circle acquires Insync Technology, as part of investment to become leading Microsoft cloud partner

Since Insync Technology first launched in 2013, there have been several milestones we are exceptionally proud of. Continuing to grow from strength-to-strength throughout the years including winning Microsoft Australia Partner Awards for customer impact in 2015 and 2017 and growing our business revenue to over 12 million.

In the past 8 years, we have grown significantly, from a three-man operation to a team of 45 people with permanent, established operations in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. In 2019 we built our first modern managed service VoiceX, a full cloud telephony solution designed to give freedom and flexibility to customers. During the past two years, we have grown a hub of successful brands and offerings including Guest Manager for M365, M365 Update, and M365 Manage.

We are dedicated to partnering with our customers to help them embrace modern workplace tools and technology to achieve their goals. Transforming businesses, schools, and governments is our passion and purpose. To do this, we hire specialists who share a strong alignment to our values –

 

 

Today we announced a new milestone in our journey. Melbourne-based and Dutch-founded Microsoft cloud specialist Rapid Circle has acquired Insync Technology. Combining Insync’s in-depth expertise on teamwork, security, calling and meeting room solutions with Rapid Circle’s expertise in business applications and cloud services, will strengthen Rapid Circle’s capability offerings for its growing mid-market and enterprise customer base in Australia.

The acquisition of Insync Technology represents the first step in Rapid Circle’s ambitious, acquisition-led growth strategy in the Australian market. The company plans to acquire further cloud specialist companies within the Microsoft ecosystem, as it sets out to achieve its goal of becoming Microsoft’s preeminent, full-service workplace capabilities partner.

Rapid Circle will add 45 staff to its local headcount through the acquisition of Insync Technology growing their business to 350 employees globally. Insync’s three founders will continue to play an active role in Rapid Circle’s day-to-day operations moving forward.

As the global Microsoft Teamwork Partner of the Year 2020, Rapid Circle counts household names such as Shell, Victorian Dept. of Premier and Cabinet, 1st Energy, and RMIT as customers, and will look to continue its expansion into government, education, financial services, and healthcare sectors across the country. According to Gartner, Inc., enterprise IT spending across all industry sectors in Australia will grow 3.6 percent to reach more than A$95.8 billion this year, with the local government, education, and healthcare sectors proving most resilient in technology spending in 2020.

Stewart Bairstow, Australian CEO of Rapid Circle, said: “Insync Technology brings a proven set of new expertise and will broaden our service portfolio to offer customers the best advice and solutions across the full range of Microsoft modern workplace technology. The acquisition of this key Microsoft partner signals the first step in Rapid Circle’s local growth plans and enhances our capability to help Australian organisations work digitally smarter and more efficiently.”

Mr. Bairstow added: “With the significant impact of COVID-19 and the increasing desire for workplace flexibility, it’s never been more important for Australian organisations to be digitally dexterous and capable. We are looking forward to bringing the capabilities of the Insync team to a wider market across Australia as well as internationally. Being part of a leading worldwide Microsoft Partner enables us to drive significant benefits for our staff and customers, as we help Microsoft drive adoption of cloud technology.”

Nathan Belling, General Manager of Insync Technology, said: “Becoming a part of Rapid Circle opens up incredible opportunities for myself, our staff, and our customers by adding capability and capacity in areas that are in high demand. By joining a company that has the same culture and similar Core Values is like a dream come true.“

When we started this business eight years ago, I had a vision of becoming a leading Microsoft Consulting business, attracting and retaining the best talent in the market, and delivering successful outcomes for our clients. This acquisition will allow us to provide customers and Microsoft with end-to-end modern workplace offerings, including business process optimisation with Power Platform, customer relationship management, and managed Azure Cloud services,” Mr. Belling continued.

What it implies for Insync

For all of us here at Insync, this is a game-changer, and an achievement we have all been working towards. It enables us to grow and expand organisation, create new offerings such as the Power Platform, Azure and extend development capabilities, adding to our strong Teams Calling and Meetings offerings and Security solutions.

What does it mean for Insync customers?

For all our clients, nothing changes a single bit, the support and project functions will continue as they do today. Insync customers will benefit from the global support and resources of Rapid Circle, including new expertise in Power Platform and Azure, as well as a global footprint for Teams experts.

 

“I am sure we will have challenges and opportunities in different measures coming up but if we can get here by ourselves in 8 years – we can meet the challenge of this next chapter.” – Stuart Moore

“We consistently bat well above our average and are known as non-nonsense Microsoft experts with depth. Our capability in the APAC region has not gone unnoticed and has led us all to this point. I am truly excited to be part of the next chapter for Insync Technology, and the opportunity it brings us all! – Damien Margaritis

 

Inside Insync – Youssef Qasem

Today we meet: 

Youssef Qasem

Consultant

Time with Insync: March 2020

Previous notable time in IT industry/customer/vendor: I’ve worked in the IT industry for the past 11 years. I began as a Service Desk Analyst in 2010 at ING, from there I worked as a Desktop Support Officer at ANZ Bank, then a Senior Support Engineer from 2012-2015 at Applaud IT. After Applaud I started at Big Air where I worked as a Systems Administrator for a year, before starting at Agilyx as a Cloud Engineer then Channel 7 as a Project Delivery Engineer before Insync Technology. 

What are your best skills for your role?

I have a Microsoft and Project Management background. Project Management was where I developed skills such as problem-solving, process improvement, and analytical skills which I have been able to apply to my current role at Insync. 

What do you like about your role? 

  • The variety of projects and customers
  • Learning about new Microsoft technologies, mostly cloud-based
  • Opportunity to improve my skills and room to study and complete Microsoft certificates

What trends are you seeing with customers? 

I think COVID changed a lot of our customer’s ways of working with more shifting to remote work. We are seeing a lot of core revival (cloud migration) and a strong desire to simplify processes through automation with more of our customers using out-of-the-box solutions rather than heavy customisation. A focus on security is another massive trend with more people working from home.

Where have you used Insync core values in Insync everyday work life: 

Make a call – I work on lots of different projects in which there can be changes to project scopes and timelines. I’ll often have to make a decision on what action is the most suitable.

Considering we are delivering new technologies, sometimes questions come from the customer that I don’t have the answer to yet, whether I as an individual or Insync in general, I’m always transparent with the customer and tell them I will get back to them.

I always help customers beyond the project scope if it’s something that would make us exceed the customer’s expectation, being a simple and not time-consuming task, that would reflect on the project progress and closure.


 

What do you like to do in your downtime?

Gym, Soccer, Beach, Travelling, Video Games.

 

Microsoft Exchange Server patch alert

Microsoft News for Exchange Server

Microsoft’s have released patches for multiple different on-premises Microsoft Exchange Server zero-day vulnerabilities that are being exploited by a nation-state affiliated group.

The vulnerabilities exist in on-premises Exchange Servers 2010, 2013, 2016, and 2019.  Exchange Online is not affected. Specifically, to minimise or avoid the impacts of this situation, Microsoft highly recommends that you take immediate action to apply the patches for any on-premises Exchange deployments you have or are managing for a customer. The first priority being servers that are accessible from the Internet (e.g., servers publishing Outlook on the web/OWA and ECP).

To patch these vulnerabilities, you should move to the latest Exchange Cumulative Updates and then install the relevant security updates on each Exchange Server.

  • You can use the Exchange Server Health Checker script, which can be downloaded from GitHub (use the latest release).
  • Running this script will tell you if you are behind on your on-premises Exchange Server updates (note that the script does not support Exchange Server 2010).
  • We also recommend that your security team assess whether or not the vulnerabilities were being exploited by using the Indicators of Compromise we shared here.

Exchange patch information

If you have any questions, reach out to one of the Insync team via our contact us page.

 

 

Breaking traditions with Breakout Rooms

by Sandy Catalucci

Breakout rooms was a new feature introduced within Microsoft Teams Meetings in late 2020. Over the past few months at Insync Technology, we’ve been busy identifying use cases with our customers and happily stumbling across our own use cases for using the breakout room feature within a Microsoft Teams Meeting. Here are a few examples –

Online university tutorials 

Insync Technology is working with a university that has shifted its entire schools to an online delivery model –  including all of its weekly tutorials. During the tutorials, some lecturers are using breakout rooms to split students into working groups to identify problems and discuss solutions together in an online setting. When the exercise is over, the lecturer closes the breakout rooms and students return to the main tutorial session to discuss the allocated problem and the solutions they came up with. The advantage of using breakout rooms within a Microsoft Teams Meeting is that it enables students to make new connections in a way similar to a traditional lecture format that they have not been able to do so since the course has been shifted to an online setting.

 

University breakout room

 

Assigning a buddy to work within our M365 Champion Program

As part of our Microsoft 365 Champion Program, participants are matched with a ‘buddy’ to work through a series of activities to test their knowledge and skill level with applications in the Microsoft 365 suite of tools. We’ve adjusted our program to utilise the breakout room feature when we kick off this session where participants are randomly split into groups of two. We then allow time for participants to meet and introduce themselves and work on their first activity together as an icebreaker.

Introducing breakout rooms to the champion program has been a great way to manage the session online and also a great opportunity to demonstrate the feature in a contextual and interactive way that enables participants to experience it for themselves.

 

buddy breakout room example

 

Online trivia and games session

Like most organisations across the world, we’ve navigated multiple lock downs and the adjustment of increased remote working due to COVID-19. To maintain positive morale, our Happiness Coordinator, Emma Schellhorn (yes we have one of those) organised a fun olympic session. This began with the arrival of a care package full of delicious treats and instructions to join a Teams Meeting.

We were split into manually created breakout rooms to meet our triva team mates and strategise who would tackle each challenge. We were then called back to the main room to start the first round team challenges. Some of these hilarious activities involved designated team mates racing against a time clock to see who can put on seven tshirts in the quickest time frame to other designated team mates standing in the room balancing books on their head.

Another social activity we held was a trivia afternoon. For trivia challenges, we broke into our designated teams via breakout rooms to answer a list of questions. Breakout rooms allowed team mates to huddle and come up with their team name, and to collectively agree on answers to triva questions. The Format would not have been possible without the breakout room feature!

 

games room breakout

 

Inside Insync – Chris Dowling

Today we meet:

Chris Dowling – Principal Consultant

Time with Insync: August 2015

Previous notable time in IT industry/customer/vendor: Best part of 10 years working within Local Government IT sector. Ranging from roles within the helpdesk and infrastructure teams with specific specialisation in networking and communications technologies.

 

What are your best skills for your role?

Maintaining a calm presence and considered approach to all challenges.

 

What do you like about your role?

Being a part of and witness to customers and colleagues excelling.

 

What trends are you seeing with customers?

An amazing take up and adoption of Microsoft Teams. While I am primarily focussed on all things Teams Voice, I am constantly impressed by the services, integrations and automation surfacing in and around the Microsoft Teams landscape.

 

What do you think about the opportunity for Teams for customers?

Microsoft Teams provides a secure, reliable, and widely accessible platform providing contextual based communication and collaboration across many of the Microsoft 365 services. Teams looks and feels purposely built to support the dynamically changing world we find ourselves in.

 

Where have you used Insync core values in Insync everyday work life:

Admire your work; it is a great way to setup your working day and a fantastic way to reflect on the day. Every day there is something to learn and/or grow from and taking a moment to reflect and acknowledge that I find to be a fulfilling way to finish up the working week.

 

 

 

What do you like to do in your downtime?

I grew up playing and loving tennis. Getting out on court and having a good hit up remains to be a great way for me unwind and take focus away from everything else in life to solely and purely striking a little tennis ball. I have since also taken up and enjoy a good social (but competitive) game of beach volleyball and invested in the world of Harley Davidson.

Understanding Guests in Microsoft 365: how many people have keys to access your office?

by Loryan Strant

The guest functionality in Microsoft 365 is becoming more and more relied upon every day – especially with the steady rise in use of Microsoft Teams. 

Although, while “guests” are becoming more prevalent in our organisations, the functionality isn’t new. In late 2017, guest access was made available for Microsoft Teams however prior to that, guests could be added to Microsoft 365 Groups (previously known as Office 365 Groups) in order to access SharePoint sites, Planner boards, and other information. 

While giving people access to content through sharing files is not exactly new, a guest has access to much more than an individual file here or there. 

In the Microsoft 365 world, we use the term “tenant” to denote our environment in the shared cloud platform. The analogy here is apt for office buildings – where different organisations don’t necessarily own the offices themselves, but instead, they are a tenant in the building. And much like offices, when we invite a guest into our tenant – we are effectively giving them a key to our office. With this key, they can come and go as they please, access areas available to them, and start conversations with anyone they can see. 

As is the case with many features in the Microsoft 365 platform, the ability to invite guests into Azure Active Directory (the underlying identity platform) is enabled by default. Much like the explosive growth of Groups and Teams enabled by the lack of restrictions put in place by IT, guest users followed a similar path. Additionally, like with Groups and Teams, many IT departments completely unaware that external users were being invited into their organisation. 

Let’s pause here for a moment and reflect on what this means. 

If we bring the “guests” functionality into the real office analogy – how comfortable are you with the fact that any one of your staff is giving outsiders keys to the office? 

Most modern office security systems are electronic and use devices like fobs or keycards which allows us to track which employee was given which keycard and when they accessed the office. 

The same approaches are unfortunately not taken with guests in Microsoft 365. 

 

Guest access restrictions 

Recently I conducted an online survey of how organisations control and manage guests in Microsoft 365. One of the key questions asked was: do you have any controls or restrictions around inviting guests? 

Do you have any control or restrictions around inviting guests?

Much like with Microsoft 365 Groups and Teams, the common response to control explosive growth is to put in place an out-of-the-box bottleneck that channels all requests through IT. 

I was personally surprised at the number of organisations that have implemented Conditional Access controls for guests, however, based on my own governance experience with organisations question this number, as I find most organisations have barely implemented Conditional Access for end-users – let alone guests. Additionally, the implementation of Conditional Access for guests can introduce additional complexities for the end-users and requires the Azure Active Directory Premium P1 license. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the respondents were starting to implement this functionality, or it was limited to end-users as opposed to fully implemented for guests. 

 

The ratio of Users to Guests

Another question asked was around how many users were in the organisation, and how many guests existed. 

How many guests exist?

Unfortunately, the data in the above graph does not give us an accurate representation as the sizes of organisations submitting ranged from individual consultants through to multinational enterprises. 

While some organisations had no guests at all, some had considerably more guests than users. For example, one organisation had 38k users and 55k guests, another had 6k users and 10k guests. 

Ultimately it comes down to the nature of the organisation and how they use Teams. Microsoft for example has a ratio of approximately 3 guests for every user. We at Insync have a ratio of approximately 10 guests for every user, as we try to conduct as much of our communication and collaboration with clients and vendors in Teams. 

The clean-up process 

Guests in Microsoft 365 do not simply disappear when the Group or Team they are members of is deleted. When this occurs, they continue to hang around the environment, with nowhere to go. This characterisation isn’t entirely accurate, as most likely the guest never accesses the environment again. However, there’s nothing to stop them from using their key to get into your office, it’s just that they can’t access the project files and rooms they previously could. 

In many instances, guests continue to exist in our Microsoft 365 tenants long after they’ve stopped accessing the office and unfortunately the ability for IT admins to see sign-in activity beyond 30 days requires more than a few mouse clicks. 

Approximately half of the respondents honestly admitted they had no formal process for cleaning up guests in their environments. Some had manual processes, some were reactive, some had automation in place, but far too many had nothing. 

When you think of the ratio of some of the organisations of users to guests, and how big some of those organisations are – it’s not exactly a comforting thought to think that possibly tens of thousands of people still have a key to your office. 

 

Are you still uncertain of what Guest Management in Microsoft Teams means for your organisation?

Enter your details below to receive a 35-minute video by Microsoft MVP Loryan Strant who will take you through options available natively within the Microsoft 365 platform, where it falls short, how that leaves your organisation exposed, and how GMS is the only purpose-built solution to address those.



 

 

Microsoft Teams New Meeting Experience

by Sandy Catalucci

Microsoft Teams is not just a video meeting for face to face discussions and sharing our screens. It provides an inclusive, interactive and intelligent workspace that enables us to work smarter, be more focused and achieve desired outcomes. In 2020 and continuing in 2021, we’ve been receiving a constant stream of updates to continuously improve Microsoft Teams and we are getting excited again for the next major change. The new Microsoft Teams meeting experience has started to roll out and will change the way you think about meetings and their purpose.  

Remember back in the day when we would schedule a meeting in Outlook, often the host would add attachments as pre reading content. If they were organised, there would be a dot point agenda. 

Today when we’re working on a project or initiative, the collaborations and discussion start before the meeting and we may already be chatting and discussing in Channels or on specific files. With Microsoft Teams you can communicate with the invitees, who may very well be all the members of a channel. We can do this using chat that is available within the meeting invite. 

With the new meeting experience, there will be a variety of apps we can add to the meeting itself to help participants be engaged, keep the meeting on track and be as productive as possible. Additionally, any chats, files, notes, meeting polls or whiteboards that were created from the meeting, will stay in the context of the meeting. There are loads more updates that all relate to an improved meeting experience. Here are some of our favourites: 

Visible Sentiment: Building off the raised hand feature, we will be able to see thumbs up, hearts etc that pops up on your attendees video. This feedback provides the host with engagement queues and allows for a smother flow of delivery. 

Source: Microsoft

Whiteboard in the meeting: New templates for brainstorming, Kanban, retrospectives, SWOT, project planning, project milestones, and many more! You can also ideate while on the go with your mobile device and annotate on the whiteboard easily. The best part is that it’s all kept together and in association with the meeting afterward. 

A brainstorm for a shoe outlined in Microsoft Whiteboard with multi-colored notes, a pie chart and a cloud diagram.

Source: Microsoft

Easy to use Polling within the meeting: Prepare the polls you want to use during the meeting and display them throughout the session. Participants can vote live and you can access rich reporting capabilities to analyse the results after the meeting. 

Noise Reduction: Microsoft has developed algorithms to assist with low bandwidth situations and background noise. Using machine learning, Microsoft Teams can detect abnormal and unnecessary sounds in the background to ensure a clear and understood voice. 

Live Captions and Transcripts: Live captions allow you to see who is speaking and what is being said. Transcripts provide us with the ability to scroll back and see what was said before you join the meeting to ensure you don’t miss anything if you join late as well as being able to access the full script after the meeting is recorded. 

Presenter View: Microsoft has brought the PowerPoint presenter view into Microsoft Teams Meetings. HallelujahThe presenter will be able to see their presented slide, the slide notes, and slide thumbnails while the attendees will only see the presented slide. You can also choose to see the meeting chat on the side all on a single screen. 

Source: Microsoft

All of these exciting features bring change to the user experience. At Insync Technology, we help our customers to understand the knowledge gaps and impacts on people within the organisation. Reach out to us for advice on how to ensure your people are ready for the new meeting experience. 

The No.1 Video Call killer could be a thing of the past

by Tim Presland

Regardless of what cloud-based Video Conferencing (or more now commonly aka “Video calling”) system you currently use or have been exposed to in the past – either as the host or as a guest, you would have had a bad meeting experience due to one common failing point – bad audio speech!

So, put your virtual hand up and keep it up if at least one the following scenarios resonates?

  • Someone says … “can everyone please on mute if you’re not talking?
  • The speaker’s audio drops in and out or clips
  • Robot sounding or even drawn out sounding voices
  • Too much background noise
  • Speakers voice is not loud enough even if everyone else seems fine.

Sure, there might be many more instances you can think of but these would more certainly be the most common experiences I have come across when speaking and dealing with hundreds of people over the years as an integrator of systems.

To rectify bad audio for Video Callings, I’ll broadly categorise into 2 common pillars that will always need addressing in an attempt to ensure that audio quality is of premium quality on any given cloud-based Video Calling system.

Hardware / Software / Configuration – without deep-diving too much, some examples that are notorious of causing bad audio are when connecting to your cloud Video Calling platform via VPN without split tunnelling (can cause robot or drawn out voices),  Windows drivers need updating (audio clipping) or not being supplied certified noise cancelling headsets (too much background noise).

With regards to Adoption Change Management, it might simply be that the end user is not aware of, understands or appreciates the importance of using supplied certified noise cancelling headsets (which strongly migrates background noise).

It’s often the case that certified headsets are left behind, lost or are a hassle to wear, especially when being mobile, so end users will simple self-resolve by using ubiquitous consumer standard grand headsets such as “ear buds” for their video calls.

However, what the end user may not realise is that these devices can pick up and amplify background noise without their knowledge.  These devices simply aren’t designed for cloud-based software codec systems.

The thing is, it’s a double-edged sword!    The wearer isn’t affected, they can usually hear fine but all the other attendees will have a bad experience with amplified background noise and thus the meeting is ruined.   In turn, the natural assumption is that the platform being used is at the heart of the problem and not a singular endpoint device that is the case which can be simply rectified.

So, does that mean you can never use “earbuds” for your Video Calls?  No, it doesn’t.  If earbuds are to be used, ACM simply educates the user on what can happen and advises they should be in a quiet area for their call as this will greatly reduce background noise pick up.  I wish I had a dollar for every time I have explained this.

Real world examples of bad audio within a Video Call using not certified headsets.  

To give weight to this scenario, I’ll give two quick extreme examples that I was directly involved with when someone wasn’t using a certified headset and the meeting was ruined.  The first example wasn’t actually a background noise amplification issue but a constant buzzing sound.   For those familiar with a guitar amplifier earthing buzz, that’s what it was like but in our meeting.   As host, I did the normal thing of getting everyone to mute which didn’t resolve the issue and after that, the most likely step for anyone else would be to restart the meeting.  I on the other hand asked if anyone was wearing earbuds and if so, can they be unplugged and sure enough, this fixed the problem.

The 2nd example only happened as recently as the start of this year when I had a one on one call with a customer that was sitting at their desk in a corporate open air office.  I could hear too many voices and it was loud.  I asked if the customer was wearing earbuds explaining there was an issue and the reply however was that they were wearing Ear Pods.  I explained the importance of wearing certified headsets to which my customer was shocked to know this as their “ear pods were expensive!”

 

So, does Microsoft have a solution for bad audio in Microsoft Teams?

Yeah …. they might well indeed and it’s called Noise Suppression.   But firstly before I cover off testing results, of course, I’ll put in the usual disclaimers of … it’s not a magic bullet, make sure your setup is right (etc), end users are still very much advised and encouraged to wear certified headsets and most of all, be aware of noise pollution in their area.  BUT if all of this has gone out the window then Microsoft may have an AI safety net setting to provide clear speech audio from any device (….potentially).

Straight from Microsoft’s mouth, albeit website, they say this…

Sounds good right!?! (yes pun intended).  So, at this very early stage of its release, our preliminary results achieved from our internal testing it turns out to be very, very promising indeed.   In fact, wearing my old school audio engineering hat and just general tech nerd helmet I’ll go as far as to say …“WHOA MAN!! THIS IS FRICKEN AWESOME!!!”

 

Our test setup.

This wasn’t an over the top test for starters, and I didn’t go low level like running spectrum analysers or picking apart phase cancellation captures but I did have Windows TASK manager open for resource observations.  The test was more of a real end user test but I will also give my 2 cents on a few things as well as considerations on what can and can’t be done at this time of writing.

The test was carried out on a peer-to-peer Teams Meeting.  Endpoints were Surface Book 2 and Surface Laptop 2 on Windows 10, thick client install of Microsoft Teams with all the latest updates, running NBN 100 / 50. 4G/5G was not tested at the time.  Video was on for both endpoints from internal cameras and the headsets were Sennheiser MB660Jabra Evolve 75 and Surface Laptop 2 microphone.

You can see from the test matrix I wanted to test each setting on a certified headset running both on wired connection and Bluetooth.

And then test on a non-certified device in different environments. Originally it was meant to be earbuds but ended up using the Laptop 2 microphone.

Due to COVID-19 social distancing, we had to test at home but pumped up enough noise (streaming music) to gain some truly incredible positive results. Please note that Noise Suppression is only available on the Windows 10 client at the time of this writing.   It is not currently available on Android, iOS, Browser or Microsoft Teams Room (MTR)

 

 

Where is the noise suppression setting in Microsoft Teams?

Here are some screen shots directly ripped from Microsoft 

Is the noise suppression setting dynamic?

The first thing that I asked myself was …“is the setting dynamic?”, meaning if I’m in a meeting and change the setting, is it applied on the fly to the current session?  The short answer is no.   If you change a setting you will need to hop out the meeting and back in for the new setting to be applied.

And to spell out what might seem obvious but just in case – the setting applied is only for that END POINT – that user, that applied the setting and not the other end points that are joined to the current meeting.  This is regardless if you are the host or guest.

 

What were the testing results?

I’ll skip to the chase.  At the time of this writing, regardless of what headset or microphone we used, only the HIGH setting had a positive impact, and it was really quite significant.  The settings of Auto, Low or Off sounded the same especially using the certified Jabra Evolve 75 and the Jabra by design was probably doing the “heavy lifting” from the very start anyway, so with that in mind, we ditched the Jabra testing and focussed on using the laptop microphone.

With the Auto, Low or Off setting for the laptop microphone there was a slight noticeable ambient background noise when my colleague wasn’t talking and when I say “noticeable”, I was intently listening because I was testing.  In a normal meeting, you wouldn’t think twice, it was a somewhat a “normal” meeting experience, which is to say having Auto, Low or Off at the time of this testing was without any discernible impact.

With HIGH turned on though, it was apparent from the get-go the AI had kicked in fully and was doing something.  It was quiet!   And it was wonderful.   My colleague read her repeatable script we were using for the tests and she was clear.  Really clear!   We then decided to introduce some noise in the way of streaming music from her mobile phone and I couldn’t stop grinning.  The music was about 95% filtered out and that remaining 5% you could hear but it was low and certainly wasn’t distracting or impacting my colleague’s voice – she remained clear.    The music was then turned up to full level and shoved right in front of the microphone as we both laughed.  She was laughing because “…it’s like a full-on party happening now” and I was laughing because I could hear every word very, very clearly.

For our testing, the HIGH setting produced something very special.

 

Why was it so special?

Noise suppression technology isn’t new and I’ve been wowed with other products on the market which yield just as excellent results.  But this is a cloud service and doesn’t require additional hardware or software installs. And being Microsoft AI too, it’s only going to improve as it matures.

It’s special though IMO on 2 counts.   Firstly, the vocal that came though sounded natural.  The background noise was removed, and it didn’t it taint the vocal audio I wanted to hear.  It didn’t clip the vocal, it didn’t sound strange, it didn’t sound synthetic, it sounded completely natural.

The second thing is, out of the box, if someone doesn’t use a certified headset or is not aware of noise pollution it has a significate chance to reduce all that stress, anxiety and work arounds for the host, guest and certainly not forgetting the poor support crew to simply make audio in meetings work as intended – to have clear speech.

 

So, did the High setting hog a lot of resources?

Quick answer is, no it didn’t seem to despite Microsoft putting in a caveat.

Having Task Manager open for resource observations showed a little increase but not that much and to be honest, Microsoft Teams is a general resource hog anyway it simply wouldn’t warrant, IMO, not having it on.   My noise suppression setting is always on HIGH.

 

My 2 cents and wrap up.

In our testing we did have my colleague’s wife happen to chat in on the call too in passing (remember testing was done at home and from a laptop microphone) and she was clear as a bell too when the music was playing, which got me to thinking there’s more to the noise suppression setting than just “removing background noise”.  I dare say (without investigation) there would have to be noise gate and noise compression functions at play here too.  So, if that’s the case, at what tolerance does Microsoft Teams noise suppression AI determine what vocal audio should be included from any given distance and then, at what level is that vocal volume boosted?  All very interesting and something I forward look to investigating with another blog at another time.

 

Quick reference note reminders

  1. At the time of writing, Noise Suppression is only on Windows 10 Client – not available on Android, iOS, Browser or MTR.
  2. The Noise Suppression setting is not dynamic, meaning it can’t be changed on the fly, you will need to exit and hop back into the meeting for it to be working.
  3. At the time of writing, our testing revealed only the HIGH seemed to have a positive impact.
  4. The High setting …
  • Suppresses all background sound that isn’t speech.
  • For this option, your computer’s processor must support Advanced Vector Extensions 2 (AVX2).
  • This option is currently not available if the meeting or call is being recorded or live captions is turned on.
  • Enabling this option uses more computer resources.

 

 

 

 

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